By Anne Pharr

Cultivating a Culture of Belonging

Ten years ago, after having taught part-time at a nearby community college for many years, I decided to apply for a full-time position. For a number of reasons, this felt like a brave move, and my internal dialogue reflected this uncertainty: “My colleagues are familiar with my work at this point. Will that benefit me in this application process, or will it work against me?” Or, “Have I shown myself qualified to be a full-fledged member of this department? Or have my peers come to the realization that a part-time spot is a better fit for me?” Sometimes, the internal voice was especially harsh: “Don’t kid yourself, Anne.” Doing my best to quiet the self-doubt, I pressed through the application process, and to my delightful surprise, I was offered the position.

Fast forward to the beginning-of-the-year department meeting. It started with a potluck brunch and some small talk, followed by what I now know is always a marathon, two-to-three-hour session of presentations, announcements, and sophisticated, sometimes-contentious debate over policy. On that day, the meeting opened with a highly regarded professor giving a presentation about the mysterious origin of our college’s unusual name — Pellissippi State. His delivery confirmed all that I had heard about him: he was engaging, informative, enlightening, entertaining — and intimidating. Right then, I determined it would be a very long time before I would dare open my mouth during one of those meetings. After all, I reasoned, if I don’t speak up, I can avoid my colleagues’ deciding I might not have been such a great hire after all. And so I remained hidden.

What I know now is that this impulse to hide was rooted in imposter syndrome, which has plagued me for longer than I remember. I didn’t just want to avoid colleagues’ concluding that I didn’t have much to offer our department; I actually feared that such a conclusion might be accurate. My always-vigilant inner critic, who seems dead-set on making me wonder whether or not I am going to be accepted, eagerly reminded me that I stood a pretty good chance of being found out as a less-than-capable colleague. And so, in an effort to manage their perception of me, I chose to remain hidden.

Today, my inner critic still gets the best of me at times, but my courage is also growing. I am learning to step away from anxiously curating my image and moving towards understanding that my identity — the unique way God created me, even with my struggles — is part of how I can bear God’s image in my community. So although I certainly would prefer to have silenced this voice by now, I also wonder whether this ongoing challenge is also a strange-seeming gift. My need to remain mindful about my own harshly critical thought patterns allows me to understand the importance of considering what my students may also be thinking and feeling — especially those who are new to higher education.

The realization came after encountering research by Gregory Walton, Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Much of Walton’s work centers on the concept of social belonging, which posits that when students’ educational environment reinforces their sense of belonging, their academic performance as well as their persistence improves. But when the context for learning undercuts students’ sense of belonging, both their academic performance and their persistence suffer. This is especially true when the students arrive to this world already wondering whether they will be viewed differently because of their particular identity.

Relevant for anyone working with students, the research is critical for those who teach a student population in which many at-risk groups can be found. For example, at my institution, which last fall had an enrollment of 10,894 students,

  • 53% were first generation students;
  • 30% were low-income students;
  • 29% were adult learners; and
  • 19% were non-white.

In addition, 53% of our first-time freshmen arrived with test scores requiring them to enroll in one or more remedial classes so that they could get academically prepared for their college-level coursework.

Walton and others state that individuals who make such groups may experience “a profound uncertainty about whether people in a particular context will include, value, and accept” them. This phenomenon — belonging uncertainty — does not mean that the student believes s/he does not belong, but instead that this question constantly lurks in the back of the individual’s mind, either consciously or unconsciously.

When I imagine walking onto a college campus in the shoes of one of these students, I can easily see myself wondering whether I am going to be valued and accepted:

  • If I am an adult learner beginning college for the first time or perhaps returning after a few (or many) years, I may notice that the majority of my classmates are 18-year-olds. It would make sense for me to wonder whether or not I am going to fit in with the younger students around me.
  • If I am the first in my family to attempt college, the language and processes so familiar to higher education may be unfamiliar to me. Words like “bursar,” “degree plan,” and possibly even “syllabus” may sound like a foreign language that I not only need to learn — and quickly! — but that also cause me to believe everyone else knows a lot more about what is going on here than I do.
  • If I am part of an under-represented minority, I may wonder whether it’s possible for someone who looks like me to be viewed as a capable, competent student. I am aware that I am likely to be stereotyped negatively by others, simply because of my ethnicity.
  • If I am a student facing (and perhaps trying to camouflage) financial difficulties, I may wonder whether I will have much in common with the students driving newer cars, wearing the latest Patagonia jacket, or drinking boutique coffee while taking class notes on an expensive-looking laptop.
  • If I am a student who learns at my first advising appointment that my test scores require me to enroll in remedial classes, I immediately realize that I am academically underprepared, and am also on guard about whether — or when — others are going to view me as unintelligent.

Because they already fear being seen as “less than,” such students may be more hesitant to form trusting relationships with the faculty, staff, and peers at their school. This, in turn, can decrease the likelihood that they will reach out for help if or when help is needed. After all, why would I ask what the word “syllabus” means when I already worry whether people see me as deficient or lacking? The last thing I want to do is reinforce such a perception.

One does not stretch far to understand how such doubts also distract individuals from learning. Students who understand themselves as “outsiders” anxiously scan this new and potentially hostile environment, searching for evidence about whether they will be included or rejected, valued, or dismissed. The mental and emotional energy required for this ongoing scrutiny depletes the cognitive resources that are so vital to students’ exploration and comprehension of the academic content in their classes.

Walton summarizes these thought processes — symptomatic of what social psychologists refer to as belonging uncertainty — in this way:

Everyone worries at times about whether they belong.... But this worry is deeper and more pervasive when you face disadvantage in a setting. Then you can wonder: Do people like me belong here? And if you are out at the social world with this question in mind, even little things can seem to harbor the threat that the answer might be no.... And that inference is debilitating.”

— (Excerpted from “Supporting Students’ Sense of Belonging.”)

It is debilitating in how it can influence my students’ beliefs about whether they will be able to succeed in this particular space.  Even if the environment seems welcoming to some, to many, or to most individuals — even if people there do not intend to be dismissive or aloof — this may not be the lived experience for those in my class who happen to be disadvantaged.  Then, when they encounter circumstances that are normal to all college students — a difficult reading assignment; a professor whose teaching style is unfamiliar, off-putting, or confusing; an unexpectedly low grade on an assignment — they may understand it as a discouraging answer to the insidious question lurking in their mind even while they sit in my class:

  • Everyone else understands more than I do.
  • I am different from the people here — especially from the kind of people who can succeed here.
  • I probably cannot do very well here, even though I would like to.
  • I guess I don’t belong in college.

Walton’s research has helped me make sense of the self-sabotaging behaviors I have observed in some of my students — behaviors I have grieved. How can it be that the promise and potential these students possess is so clear to me, yet so difficult, at times, to draw out?

Reflecting on this dilemma, I recognize that I have grappled with doubts that resemble what my students may experience.  My hesitancy to speak in department meetings, for example, is rooted in uncertainty about whether or not my colleagues see me as someone deserving of being included, valued, and accepted.  Because I don’t want to do or say anything that could confirm the bias that I fear already exists—a bias I fear may be accurate--I participate in self-sabotaging behaviors of my own.

I have experienced times when my own self-doubt has been profoundly and painfully debilitating, distorting my own perceptions about my work, my relationships, and even my standing with God. In fact, I recognize that these questions about my value and acceptance initiate the deep fear not just that I won’t be accepted, but that I am, by definition, unacceptable.

Perhaps the source of these insidious, relentless doubts is the enemy not only of my soul, but of my students’ souls — an enemy whose greatest achievement would be to discourage the people God created to bear his image in the world — to discourage us so thoroughly that we would be kept from fulfilling his purposes us.

In my own journey, I am learning the importance of noticing the story I am telling myself about myself, which is a type of metacognition. When I realize I have labeled an uncomfortable interaction as yet another indicator of my deep flaws, I can prayerfully redirect such thinking, anchoring my thoughts in the truth of how God sees me: as his beloved creation with something unique to offer to the world. This process, I am learning, requires time and practice.

One course I teach includes a unit on metacognition, during which I teach students the importance of noticing how they think about themselves. In the class, they reflect on problems they encounter and consider whether such experiences are influencing how they think about themselves as students. Are they viewing the problems as challenges common to all college students? Or are they labeling these experiences as signals that they are not capable and competent — that they don’t belong?

This strategy is consistent with Walton’s research, which emphasizes what experts refer to as social belonging interventions — activities that function to guide students towards developing a different narrative for how they interpret the challenges they face in school and for how they view themselves as students. The activities are not particularly time-consuming. Yet they create opportunities for students to notice their own thought patterns, identify ways they may be misinterpreting their experiences, and consider other interpretations. And research is showing how such activities can be potent — benefiting not only students’ academic performance, but also their resilience and persistence in the face of challenges.

Learning about these strategies has motivated me to increase my colleagues’ awareness of the unique strengths and struggles of our students and to consider utilizing such strategies in their own classes. Opportunities to do so have happened in a number of contexts: facilitating short-term and semester-long reading groups; hosting brief workshops, along with a college-wide poverty simulation; building a blog of student stories; and creating a podcast featuring faculty discussing their work and, most recently, their own encounters with difficulty in college.

My sense is that God has used my own struggles, along with the research connected with social belonging, to reinforce my own sense of belonging, allowing me to come out of hiding and contribute to a campus culture that benefits all of us by supporting each person’s sense of belonging.  And my understanding of my own difficulties has shifted; where I used to see them as embarrassing evidence of a painful flaw that must remain hidden, I now understand them as a gift—a gift I would not have chosen, but one that can influence and perhaps even enrich my work.

I hope not only to more effectively support students in their academic endeavors, but to sow seeds which someday may enable my students and colleagues to more readily understand themselves not only as individuals who are included, valued, and accepted by their communities, but also — I pray — deeply loved by the Father who created them, who longs to be reconciled to them, and who takes delight as they fulfill their uniquely vital roles in their families and communities.

About the Author

A graduate of Baylor University, Anne Pharr has taught English and First Year Seminar at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1998.  In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Anne serves as program coordinator for the First Year Seminar course and, along with some of her colleagues, developed a college-wide initiative, Partners for Student Potential (PSP), whose mission is to deepen and broaden faculty and staff awareness of the challenges and strengths represented by at-risk students.  PSP activities have included gathering and sharing PSCC student stories at the Walking the Hero's Journey blog as well as interviewing PSCC faculty and administrators about their own college struggles in the Partners for Student Potential podcast.  Besides enjoying family and friends, Anne's passions include writing, music, reading, exercise, Huckleberry the dog, and a great cup of coffee — preferably first thing each morning. More of her writing can be found at her two blogs: shadowwonder (on Christian spirituality) and gritology (exploring how educators and parents can cultivate grit, determination, resilience, and perseverance — and why we should).


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